Language of Learning

By Carol Kagezi

Earlier this year a team of six second-year Journalism and Media Studies students investigated the role of the English language at university and the impact it has on a multilingual environment such as Rhodes University. Their investigation was done at a time when campus was buzzing with talks of institutional transformation. They produced a radio show with Professor Leonhard Praeg from the Political and International Studies department and Zikisa Maqubela, incumbent SRC President, as their guests.

The show problematized the reliance on the use of the English language in the academic arena as it more often than not causes indigenous languages to be devalued. Professor Praeg explained that the continuous choice to use the English language as the formal mode of communication in lecture rooms implicitly means the devaluation of all other languages.

Professor Praeg and Zikisa were in agreement that the use of the English language has led to the erosion of cultural values in our society today. This is because the more we speak the English language, the more we adapt and assimilate to a westernised way of doing things and this does not exclude learning.

Professor Praeg emphasised that language is very central to culture as it is a relationship which is incredibly complex since it goes to the core of one’s being. He further explained that students who are not English first language speakers constantly struggle academically at Rhodes, not because they are weak but because their core values which are embedded in their indigenous languages are not recognised and engaged.

Professor Praeg suggested that a lot more ought to be done to assist students who are not English first language speakers outside of the Extended Studies program. One of the ways he proposed was by drawing a short summary of the course at the beginning of the year and have it translated into indigenous languages. This summary would then be presented to students on the first day of lectures and they would be asked to point out the words that could not be translated. This exercise, he says, would make visible to English first language speakers that they take for granted an entire cognitive structure built into language that assumes that all the distinctions we make in the English language must be available in other languages.

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